EMBER DAY SERMON

Offered Friday Sept. 23, 2011
at The Chapel of the Good Shepherd,
The General Theological Seminary, NYC

Ember Day Propers II:
1 Samuel 3:1-10, Ephesians 4:11-16,
Psalm 63, Matt. 9:35-38

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I speak to you in the Name of the Holy Trinity . . . Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . .  Amen.

The gospel reading for today was selected for this Ember Friday – Ember Days being those sets of days, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, that occur four times – four separate weeks  – throughout the year.  These are days that Anglicans set aside to pray for the formation, and the transformation of those preparing for ordination.  And so it’s very appropriate in today’s Gospel to hear Jesus say to his disciples “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

If we continue reading the next chapter in Matthew, we find that the disciples whom Jesus implores to pray for labourers will turn out to be the very same discipless who go out in answer to their own prayer.

Most of us are students here at General because of a discerned call to this same mission – and today we join our prayers with the church in support of this mission and in support of future ordained ministers.  So, like the disciples, we find ourselves both the subject and object of today’s gospel message.

This reading comes at the end of the ninth chapter of Matthew and functions as a short transitional passage, a pivotal passage. It starts by wrapping up – by summarizing Jesus’ pastoral ministry of teaching and healing, his initial solo proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.

The passage ends on the theme of mission – a prayer for laborers who will expand Jesus’ mission.  The Apostles will be sent out to continue doing exactly what Jesus is doing – healing and preaching, as pastors and prophets wearing the cloak of discipleship.

But I believe that the key to all this – the words on which this transitional passage turns – the basis for the movement from Jesus’ solo ministry to the mission of the Apostles lies in these words:

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus sees the crowds . . . . .  I wonder what it might be like to see as Jesus sees?  To see the crowds as Jesus sees them.

Perhaps Jesus is thinking about expanding his evangelical mission when sees the crowds – the crowds collectively rather than as individuals – he sees the crowds as harassed, helpless, marginalized groups, like herds of sheep without a shepherd.  Up to this point in Jesus’ ministry, the crowds have been the astonished audience of Jesus’ teaching and the witnesses of his miracles – many of these miracles involved the physical and spiritual healing of individuals.  But now the crowds, collectively, become the object of his concern.  The perspective is broadening.

Thomas Merton wrote about his personal experience of this kind of expanding vision – this bigger and deeper Christ-like way of seeing:  After 17 years in a monastery as a monk dedicated to a life of personal transformation and to prayer on behalf of the world, he suddenly realized that he was connected to all the people around him on a street in Louisville, Kentucky.  He wrote:

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If they could only see themselves as they really are. If we could only see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

I believe that for us also, it is a sign of spiritual growth, personal spiritual transformation, when we begin to see and know and love on a broader scale –when we begin to experience the energy . . . the spirit, the Holy Spirit which unites us to each other – each one to each and every other.  And I believe that this spiritual growth into a sense of union with all humankind  will move our hearts to the work of social transformation, to feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus has compassion – I wonder what it might be like to have compassion – to love as Christ loves?

The word translated as compassion in this text has a distinct theological meaning, deeper than other terms for pity or sympathy or mercy that are used to describe either God’s mercy or human feelings of concern. Especially in Matthew’s gospel, this love, this compassion, is a visceral response to human need, God’s response through Jesus to hungry or marginalized crowds.  Thomas Merton experienced compassion as “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.”

For us this compassion may be the bridge that arises between personal transformation and social transformation – the divine energy that expands our hearts to drive our social action.  As Matthew Fox has said:  “Compassion is not a moral commandment but a flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies”.

Is all this beginning to sound strangely like Prof. Lamborn’s class and Donald Winnicott’s theory that “being is primary, and the sense of doing is an outgrowth of it”? Does all this bring to your minds eye Prof. Wright’s illustration of the dance of perichoresis?  Does it resonate with what we’re absorbing from Archbishop Carnley about the Holy Trinity and Prof. Malloy’s suggestions about the mystery of the Eucharist?  Perhaps this is a very positive indication of the formation we’re experiencing here at GTS.  With God’s call, with God’s grace and with our consent and co-operation, we are being formed and transformed into the mind of Christ – into Christ’s Trinitarian model of seeing, loving, serving.

In the Letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote:  The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

The good news is that we will see, we will love, we will serve – as and for Jesus Christ.  The continued coming of the Kingdom depends on it!                                                          Amen

(Listen to this sermon online.)

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